The location of the bulk of the conflict
|Commanders and leaders|
Lawrence E. Murray
Eduardo Serra Rexach
|Maritime Command|| Spanish Navy
|Casualties and losses|
|None||1 fishing vessel captured|
The Turbot War (known in Spain as "Guerra del Fletán") was an international fishing dispute between Canada (supported by the United Kingdom and Ireland) and Spain (supported by the European Union and Iceland) in which Canada stopped a Spanish fishing trawler from Galicia in international waters and arrested its crew. Canada claimed that European Union factory ships were illegally overfishing Greenland halibut, also known as Greenland turbot, on the Grand Banks, just outside Canada's declared 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Territorial seas have changed over time, having begun with a 3-nautical-mile (5.6 km) "cannon shot" territorial sea, followed by the long-standing extension to a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) standard. The economic control of the waters surrounding nations to a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zones (EEZ) were agreed at the conference on the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, and became recognised internationally on November 14, 1994. As a self-governing colony and dominion, Newfoundland's foreign policy, just as Canada's, was established by the British government until the Statute of Westminster 1931. However, in 1934, Newfoundland's government voted to be put under the administration of a commission appointed by London; this situation remained until 1949 when the dominion entered Canadian Confederation.
Following Confederation, Canada recognized many of the foreign policy agreements Newfoundland had entered under this commission. During the 1950s to the 1970s, the domestic and foreign fishing fleets became increasingly industrialized, with massive factory freezer trawlers fishing out of Newfoundland ports – foreign fleets were based in Newfoundland and could fish 12 nautical miles offshore, while domestic fleets could fish in both the territorial sea and the offshore.
By the 1970s the overfishing by industrial vessels in the waters of the other provinces of eastern Canada was evident, although each subsequent federal government continued to ignore this problem, and even contributed to it by using the issuance of fishing licenses for more inshore and offshore domestic vessels. Between 1973 and 1982 the United Nations and its member states negotiated the Third Convention of the Law of the Sea – one component of which was the concept of nations being allowed to declare an EEZ. Although not adopted into international law until 1982, the possibility of declaring an EEZ became a de facto reality in 1977 with the conclusion of those sections of the Third Conference negotiations relating to maritime boundary and economic control.
Many nations worldwide declared 200-nautical-mile EEZs, including Canada and the United States. The EEZ boundaries became a foreign policy issue where overlapping claims existed, as was the case between Canada and the United States in the Gulf of Maine, Dixon Entrance, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Beaufort Sea, as well as between Canada and France in the case of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
But on the whole, for fishermen in eastern Canada, it meant they could fish unhindered out to the limit without fear of competing with the foreign fleets. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Canada's domestic offshore fleet grew as fishermen and fish processing companies rushed to take advantage. It was also during this time when it was noticed that the foreign fleets now pushed out to 200 nautical miles offshore and excluded from the rich Canadian waters, were increasing their harvest on the small areas of the Grand Banks that were outside the area of the EEZ.
By the late 1980s the smaller catches of Northern cod were being reported throughout the Atlantic coast of Canada as the federal government and citizens of coastal regions in the area began to face the reality that the domestic and foreign overfishing had taken its toll. In the end stocks of cod in and around Canada's EEZ were severely depleted. Reluctant to act at a time of declining political popularity, the federal government was finally forced to take drastic action in 1992 when a total moratorium was declared indefinitely for the Northern Cod.
The immediate impact was felt most in Newfoundland, followed by the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. The nascent Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, organized after the 1977 EEZ declarations to coordinate conservation efforts in Canada, the United States, and member nations in Europe (both western and eastern bloc countries), also declared a ban, however it was implemented too late to be effective – cod which 5–10 years before was being caught in record numbers, had vanished almost overnight to the point where it was considered for endangered species protection.
The economic impact in coastal Newfoundland was unprecedented. To lessen the impact that its policies of permitting overfishing had exacted upon rural Newfoundlanders, the federal government swiftly created a relief program called "The Atlantic Groundfish Strategy" (TAGS) to provide short- to medium-term financial support, and employment retraining for the longer term.
Despite TAGS, Newfoundland and coastal Nova Scotia were bleeding severely as communities began to experience an out-migration on a scale not seen in Canada since the prairie dust bowls of the 1930s. The anger at federal political figures was palpable and with the wholesale rejection of short-term Prime Minister Kim Campbell, incoming prime minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals were going to face the ongoing wrath of voters whose entire livelihoods had been decimated as a result of decades of federal neglect and mismanagement, and whose communities, property values, net worth, and way of life were declining rapidly.
In the years since the cod moratorium, federal fisheries policy makers and scientists had scrambled to attempt to find a replacement species that could at least reinject economic stimulus into the affected regions. The ground fishery, while a fraction of what it had been during the cod years, did have some bright spots – one of which was the Greenland halibut commonly known in Canada as turbot. The turbot had decreased in demand due to a common dislike for the taste in the European Union.
Canada was not alone in recognizing the growing value of the turbot, and foreign fishing fleets operating off the 200-nautical-mile EEZ were beginning to pursue the species in increasing numbers. By 1994, Canada and NAFO had tracked about 50 violations of boats crossing the 200-nautical-mile EEZ limit to fish illegally within Canadian waters, as well as recording use of illegal gear and overfishing outside Canadian waters.
The new federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Brian Tobin, directed the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), along with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to begin a very aggressive dialogue with the European Union over the presence of its fishing fleet and its practices, particularly the use of illegal trawl nets just outside the Canadian EEZ while fishing for turbot. Tobin's critics in Canada noted that he was likely using his department as a political prop to shore up support during a time of increased social unrest in the region, yet in the winter of 1995, Tobin directed DFO to establish a legal argument which could be made for the seizure of a foreign vessel in international waters using the premise of conservation.
The Estai incident
Minister Tobin and the federal cabinet then told the DFO to demonstrate Canadian resolve on the issue by "making an example" of a European Union fishing vessel. On 9 March 1995, an offshore patrol aircraft detected the Spanish stern trawler Estai in international waters outside Canada's 200-nautical-mile EEZ. Several armed DFO fisheries patrol vessels, and Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Navy (HMCS Gatineau) support, intercepted and pursued Estai, which cut its weighted trawl net and fled after an initial boarding attempt, resulting in a several hours' chase which ended after the Canadian Fisheries Patrol vessel Cape Roger fired a .50 calibre (12.7 mm) machine gun across the bow of Estai. The Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfred Grenfell used high-pressure fire-fighting water cannon to deter other Spanish fishing vessels from disrupting the operation. Finally, armed DFO and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers boarded Estai in international waters on the Grand Banks.
Estai was escorted to St. John's, arriving with great fanfare across the province and region — and the country. Canada's federal court processed the case and the charges against the crew while Spain and the European Union protested vehemently, threatening boycotts against Canada and wishing to have the case heard at the International Court of Justice.
Tobin and his department ignored the controversy and instead had the oversized trawl net which Estai had cut free salvaged. The DFO contracted a Fishery Products International ground fish trawler to drag for Estai's trawl. On the first attempt it retrieved the Estai's net which had been cut. It was found that Estai was using a liner with a mesh size smaller than permitted by the Canadian Laws, but not by the EU laws, which did not have the same restriction about the mesh size. The net was shipped to New York City where Tobin called an international press conference on board a rented barge in the East River outside the United Nations headquarters. There, the net from Estai was displayed, hanging from an enormous crane, and Tobin used the occasion to shame the Spanish and EU governments, pointing out the small size of the holes in the net which are illegal in Canada. Spain never denied that the net was from Estai but continued to protest Canada's use of "extra-territorial force". The Spanish government asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, for leave to hear a case claiming that Canada had no right to detain Estai. However, the court later refused the case. Later, Canada released the crew of Estai. On the same day that Tobin was in New York, the United Kingdom blocked an EU proposal to impose sanctions on Canada.
Tobin claimed that Canada would not enter negotiations as long as illegal fishing continued, and demanded the withdrawal of all fishing vessels in the area as a precondition. On March 15, the owners of Estai posted $500,000 bond for the vessel, and it was returned to Spain. Subsequently, the rest of the fishing fleet also left the area, and preliminary talks were scheduled for the upcoming G7 conference. These talks failed, as the Spanish refused to change their position, and Spanish fishing vessels subsequently returned to Grand Banks. Spain also implemented a visa mandate for all Canadians visiting, or planning to visit Spain. This resulted in several Canadians being deported from Spain who had been legally in Spain up until the moment the visa mandate was adopted. The visa mandate was later overturned by the EU in 1996. The Spanish Navy deployed the Serviola-class patrol boat Atalaya to protect its country's fishing vessels. The Spanish Navy also prepared a surface task group with frigates and tankers, but Spain eventually decided against sending it. Negotiations ceased on March 25, and the following day, Canadian ships cut the nets of the Spanish trawler Pescamero Uno. The Spanish Navy responded by deploying a second patrol boat. Canadian warships and patrol planes in the vicinity were authorized by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to fire on Spanish vessels that exposed their guns. Direct negotiations between the EU and Canada eventually restarted, and a deal was reached on April 5. Spain, however, rejected it, demanding better terms. After Canada threatened to forcibly remove Spanish fishing vessels, the EU pressured Spain into finally reaching a settlement on April 15. Canada reimbursed the $500,000 that had been paid for Estai's release, repealed the CFPR provision that allowed the arrest of Spanish vessels, and a reduction of Canada's own Turbot allocation. A new international regime to observe EU and Canadian fishing vessels was also created.
The dispute raised Brian Tobin's political profile, helping to preserve his political career in Newfoundland at a time when federal politicians were being increasingly vilified. It also led to his decision in 1996 to pursue to the leadership of the Liberal Party of Newfoundland following the resignation of premier Clyde Wells, as well as a widely discussed future possibility for leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.
The Newlyn incident
Although Spain was getting political support from the EU (including naval support from Germany among others), the United Kingdom and Ireland supported Canada. The then prime-minister John Major risked his status within the EU community by actively speaking out against Spain. Because of this, some British fishing boats took to flying Canadian flags to show their support. This brought the conflict to European waters when a Cornish fishing boat, Newlyn, then flying the Canadian flag, was arrested by a French ship that believed it to be Canadian. This dragged Britain from its position of passive backing into full support of the Canadians. Overnight, Canadian flags began to fly from all manner of British and Irish vessels.
The rest of the EU rallied behind France and Spain, but hesitated to make any mobilizations against the British, Irish, or Canadians.
Upon hearing the news of the conflict, Iceland spoke up and took the side of the EU against Britain in light of their similar clash with the British, known as the Cod Wars. As with the EU, no military mobilization took place. Iceland tried to put political pressure on the United Kingdom and Ireland. The British and the Irish pointedly ignored these actions and continued their unquestioned support of Brian Tobin and the Canadians.
In the end Newlyn was returned to the British without further incident.
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- Gough, Adam (2009). "The Turbot War: the Arrest of the Spanish Vessel Estai and Its Implications for Canada-EU relations." Ottawa: University of Ottawa, Master’s dissertation. 2009. http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/thesescanada/vol2/002/MR61207.PDF.
- Martin, Lawrence (2003). Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chrétien. Toronto: Penguin Group (Canada). ISBN 0-670-04310-9.
- Game Theory and the Turbot War
- El día que Canadá y España vivieron su guerra del Fletán. La voz de Galicia (in Spanish)
- For Cod and Country Spoof song based on Turbot War performed by Cultus Cod at Spring Scream 1995, Kenting, Taiwan.